Lisbett Contreras and her sister Grisett have lived together since they emigrated from Venezuela more than 10 years ago. Today, Lisbett is married and has two boys, seven-year-old Jonathan and his six-year-old brother Samuel. Grisett lives with Lisbett and her husband in their clean but run-down house in a pleasant neighborhood on the west side of the Salt Lake valley.
Grisett has long appreciated the value of a good education. While in Venezuela, she earned a business degree and now processes credit applications for American Express. Many of her cousins, lacking a good education, are forced to do construction work or drive a cab.
Having lived with her sister for so long, Grisett is part of Lisbett’s family. Occasionally, Jonathan or Samuel asks her if she’ll always live with them. She tenderly explains that someday she’ll get married too, and have her own family. For now, she is a part of their family. She even refers to Jonathan and Samuel as “our kids.”
As Jonathan approached kindergarten, Lisbett and Grisett grew anxious about where he would go to school. Having spoken with friends and neighbors about the neighborhood public schools, they worried about security, academics, and respect. They felt private schools would provide a safe, strong learning environment where Jonathan, and later Samuel, could get a really good education.
Unfortunately, Lisbett couldn’t afford the single tuition for Jonathan to attend a private school, let alone the double tuition for Jonathan and Samuel. Undaunted, she kept investigating the possibilities. She tried to transfer Jonathan to a better public school on the east side, but it was already full. She looked at charter schools, but the waiting lists were too long. Eventually she was referred to Children First Utah (CFU).
CFU provides private school tuition scholarships so even low-income families have equal access to a quality education. However, families still have to pay half the tuition. With her husband already working two jobs to make ends meet, Lisbett knew they didn’t have that extra money.
Being single, though, Lisbett’s sister Grisett has some spare money. More importantly, she loves Jonathan and Samuel and wants them to have a really good education.
“I want them to progress in life, to go to college, to earn a scholarship,” she says. “I want them to be challenged, to learn, not just fill out papers.”
Instead of buying an entertainment center or saving money for a house of her own, Grisett agreed to pay a quarter of her nephews’ tuition, $350 per month. Lisbett and her husband would pay another quarter, and CFU would pay the rest.
At some point, Grisett may not be able to help Jonathan and Samuel like this. Eventually she’ll have a husband, children of her own, and all the obligations that go along with a family. For now, though, she and Lisbett will work together to build a heritage of education “for our kids.”
M. Royce Van Tassell ([email protected]) is executive director of Education Excellence Utah.